January 31, 2022
By Dave Whitlock
Editor's note: Flyfisherman.com will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Dave Whitlock, Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, John Voelker, Al Caucci & Bob Nastasi, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.
This article originally appeared in the September 1988 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of "Fishing Bass Flies."
Successful fly fishing for bass and associated species requires special techniques and methods. The Whitlock Straight-line System is the result of years of field research and bass fishing. It is the most efficient way I have found to fish for bass. Basically, a fly fisher must present, control, animate, and retrieve the fly with a tight line, then strike, hook, and control the bass with aggressive authority. These steps taken together make up a precise system that you must understand, practice, and habitually use to most effectively fly fish for bass.
Presentation and Control
My system begins with a direct-to-the-water presentation. The forward and down part of the cast must be in a casting plane that causes the fly to hit the target immediately after the leader turns over. This gives you the best opportunity to hit the target perfectly. Study the illustration to get a strong mental picture. An overhead or sidearm straight-to-the-water cast accomplishes this best, depending on obstructions, wind, and the direction from which you must cast.
By the time the fly strikes the target you should have the rod tip at the correct angle and your two-point control system started. Establish two-point flyline control by grasping the line in your line hand and pinching it between your rod-hand index finger and the rod grip. Do this as the fly begins to drop to the water but before it actually hits the water. You must establish control so quickly because bass often strike the fly as it falls or immediately as it hits the water. You must be ready for a strike at any time.
As the fly hits the water, and before all the fly line settles on it, point the fly rod straight at the fly and drop the rod tip to the water's surface. This eliminates fly-line slack and premature fly movement caused by the high rod-tip angle common to trout fly fishing. Because the fly line is heavy, it sags to a perpendicular angle from the fly-rod tip if the rod tip is held high. The sag pulls the fly line toward you. Three to five feet of slack line can tug a fly an equal distance away from the target. Both results are counterproductive and wrong. So keep the tip low–right at water level.
When the fly, leader, and line come down on the water, usually there are some slack curves in the leader and the line. Keeping the tip low, pull in this slack with your line hand without moving the fly. This makes a straight, tight line path from your hands to the fly. Practice this delivery so you can consistently put the fly on the water and remove the small amount of slack in your line without moving the fly. You do not want the fly to move until you initiate the retrieve.
The foregoing steps give you precise control of the fly, allowing you to keep it in place, move it, feel a strike, and set the hook in the most effective way possible. This straight-line method is the most efficient way to control a bass fly on the water.
The Basic Retrieve
When the fly lands, you may allow it to rest motionless, let it sink, or begin to animate and retrieve it. To do the latter, maintain the low rod tip and straight line you established during your presentation, and use your line hand to make a series of fly-line strips that will move the fly with whatever animation you want it to have. If you keep a tight fly line and low rod tip, the fly will move with the exact rhythm and pattern you create by stripping the fly line with your line hand.
Maintain your second point of line control by squeezing the line against the rod handle with the index finger of your rod hand. Relax your grip slightly as you pull in the fly line with your line hand. After making a strip of about 18 to 24 inches, coil the line in your palm or drop it and then grasp the fly line at the rod again to begin a new retrieve. Using your line hand in this manner is the most efficient way to maintain control of fly-line tension for retrieving and hook-setting.
Do not use the rod tip to move the fly. This causes immediate slack line and loss of fly control. Do not use the rod to pull or jerk the fly over or through land- or water-based obstacles. For best results, continue to use straight line-hand pulls.
Animation–The Key Ingredient
Animating and retrieving a bass fly provide pleasure on every cast. No matter how cleverly or cunningly these flies are tied, they're only as effective as you make them with your ability to place the fly where you want and animate it on or in the water. You are the key to the effectiveness of the flies. The tackle-control system should provide you with the best method to make these flies do exactly what the real creatures do–attract and entice a bass to seize them.
To animate and retrieve bass flies most successfully, follow the straight-line method. Don't twitch your rod.
Twitching the rod causes many feet of slack line to form so you cannot feel a strike. And when you don't feel the take, you lose strikes, particularly from larger fish.
Before you fish any bass fly, observe its action in or on the water: floating or sinking or sitting still and under various moves. A well-designed bass fly looks good both when it is dormant and in action. Most bass, especially large ones, are efficient and crafty; they prefer to ambush a helpless or careless creature rather than engage in a tiring high-speed chase of a terrified thing. On the contrary, most fishermen like to move lures quickly and almost constantly, which may be more entertaining to us than to the fish.
Practically every big bass I've caught took the fly when I accidentally or purposefully let it sit a long period (ten seconds or more) or when I moved it very little after it hit the water. Some of my better catches came when I was precisely inching the fly in, over, or around structure, as if I were trying to sneak the fly out of danger. There are times, however, when bass will chase and strike rapidly moving flies. Some bass experts even feel that fast-moving flies do a better job of fooling larger fish because the fish don't get a chance to scrutinize the fly, or because the fisherman can cover more water with fast retrieves. If a big bass is in a rare aggressive mood, the fast retrieve works better; but if this reckless attitude was common among big bass, there would be few of them swimming around, because most artificial-lure fishermen fish their lures with rapid retrieves.
No one retrieve is always the best. Foods, temperature, water conditions, and individual fish habits vary. That's why fishing flies and catching bass never get boring. Don't hesitate to experiment with all types of actions and action speeds.
Before discussing action/retrieve routines, let me emphasize that to have true control of the fly's movement in still, windy, or flowing water you must: use the low-rod-tip, straight-line, two-point control system; understand how to mend your fly line to keep it and the fly from developing excessive drag caused by wind or current; and fish from a stable, stationary position. Any time you cast across water currents or a windy surface, the water movement causes drag, which affects your control of the fly. Study the illustration of how to control drag by mending the line with your rod.
Basic Fly Actions
A number of basic fly actions work well for bass flies. The following list covers some of the more important actions:
No retrieve. The fly is cast to an exact spot that you feel has fish nearby. Establish straight-line control, let the fly float or sink, and remain there a good while. This is a particularly effective method where the water is clear or where the fish are pressured or selective.
Use this method when you suspect a bass is under a structure. Put the fly as close to the log, stump, or boulder as you can, and keep it there. This method is also ideal if there is just a small open space of water in lily pads, milfoil, or cypress stumps. In these areas the bass will not or cannot move far for prey, and it will usually respond well to the sitting fly.
With this method, usually the longer you keep the fly sitting, the bigger the bass you can expect to catch.
Twitch and pause. Cast the fly to a spot that you feel has a bass nearby. Let the fly sit in place about three to five seconds, then twitch it an inch or so. Pause and repeat the twitch several times, then make another cast. You want the action of a more-or-less helpless creature or one that's relaxed and moving slightly. If you're using a surface or diving fly, vary the twitch from a silent move to an audible pop or bubble. More noise works best on rough surfaces, and in dark, murky, or densely structured water. This effective method can be used in combination with the noretrieve method by twitching and pausing after you let the fly sit a while in the same restricted structure or pocket areas. It's also excellent for moving the fly off of, up to, and just past ambush points, such as brush, stumps, boat docks, log ends, or drop-offs.
When using both methods, watch the water around the fly carefully for any telltale signs of fish movement, such as a small wake, bubbles, a nervous minnow or minnows, or movement in grass or lily pads. Often if you fail to see these telltale movements, the strike comes at the spot which the fly just vacated as you lift it off the water for another cast. If this happens, immediately cast back or wait five to ten minutes, then cast. Often when a bass misses its prey, it becomes nervous and hides, but eventually the fish relaxes and returns to its original ambush position.
Strip and pause. Cast the fly well past where you suspect the bass is waiting. Let the fly settle a second or two or until it sinks to the level at which you want to fish it. Then begin a series of fly-line strips, from an inch to a foot long, pausing between them. Vary the strips and pauses–that is, one strip, pause; three strips, pause; one long strip, and so on. Retrieve the fly up to, through, and past the area you feel holds the bass. The more irregular the stripping rhythm, the more effective this method is. Such a method duplicates the natural movements of a handicapped creature. Use this method to fish over and past more extensive structures, such as a series of logs, rocks, stream pockets, and moss beds, as well as across points and along creek channels.
Panic strip. Cast the fly hard against, past, or over the area or structure you want to fish. When the fly lands, begin an immediate series of rapid fly-line strips from inches long up to a couple of feet in length. This fast retrieve usually imitates a panicky prey fish such as a minnow. Repeating this retrieve over a particular area often excites a single bass or groups of fish into a frenzy. This method is excellent for covering large areas of open, still, and flowing water where bass are apt to be intercepting and chasing schools of fast-moving minnows. It is also a good tactic to use to "pound" a spot like a reef or flooded timber area with lots of casts to bring deep-water fish to the surface.
These are four basic methods. Obviously, they are only guidelines to animating bass flies, but if you practice them and incorporate your knowledge of what the natural food does, where the fish are, and how conditions affect the fish's behavior, you'll have good results. Be certain that you cover each area correctly and thoroughly. Don't hesitate to change flies or action if you know fish are there. Bass can be psyched into striking if you are clever about retrieving. They often respond to repeated casts to the same areas.
Fly fishing uniquely allows the bass fisherman to fish the fly just in the water area where he thinks the bass are holding, wasting no time reeling in over unproductive water. In other words, you can fish your fly over productive spots two or three times for every one cast and presentation made by a lure fisherman.
Some days bass will hit any fly retrieved any way; other days they'll be terribly selective. You must never become rigid in your thinking about which flies to fish and how to fish them. Always look for a pattern of behavior on a particular day.
Hints on Fishing Bass Flies
Probably the greatest problem faced by bass fishermen is getting the fly constantly snagged or hooked on trees, logs, lily pads, cattails, moss, stumps, and rocks. The monofilament snag-guard is a must for bass flies, but it isn't effective if you retrieve your fly improperly in close cover. Jerking or pulling quickly on the line can compress or deflect the hook guard, exposing the point of the hook to the snag. Always pull the fly over, around, and through these obstructions slowly. Pulled slowly, a fly escapes the snag because the fly can avoid or crawl over the object without its snag-guard bending down.
A fly snags because the head, not the hook, engages the obstacle first, stopping the fly. Then if you pull hard, the head comes free, but the snag-guard deflects or compresses and the hook slams into the object. If you jerk or move the fly quickly with your fly rod, the fly snags in the obstruction.
If you do get snagged, do not pull hard on the fly; that simply snags it more. Either wiggle the rod and fly line to shake the hook loose or make a roll cast so the fly-line loop rolls behind the snagged fly (away from you), then pull sharply on the line. That should pull it free of the snag.
If that doesn't work and you cannot reach the fly by foot or boat, point the fly rod at the snagged fly, tighten the line, then quickly release it. This sometimes causes a reverse spring action that frees the fly. If that fails, again pull the fly line taut with the rod pointed straight at the snagged fly and continue to increase pressure until the fly tears out or the leader breaks. Many fly fishers use their fly rods as a derrick. and yank the fly, hoping it will come free. Violent jerking is seldom successful and may damage your rod or line. If yanking on the fly makes it come free, the recoil may send the fly rocketing at you or a companion.
If your fly remains visible as you retrieve it, you'll see the bass strike it. But if the fly is out of sight–under water or at night–you must sense or feel the strike. Usually bass strike hard enough for you to feel the take if your fly line is slack-free and your attention is riveted on it. You can also watch your visible fly line, especially at the point where it is closest to the fly; the line usually makes some movement other than what you are imparting when the fish grabs the fly. This unusual movement can indicate a strike. The fly line may get tight, feel heavy, twitch forward, become slack, or may suddenly or slowly move to one side or the other. When fishing subsurface flies, develop the habit of watching the water for any abnormal movement or faint flash. Sometimes you will see the water bulge in a swirling eddy near your fly's position. This indicates that the bass has rushed the fly, though you do not actually feel a take.
You must react quickly if you want to hook most bass that take your fly. Remember, your fly may look, act, feel, sound, and smell real, but most bass quickly become suspicious once they take the fly into their mouths. They usually hold the fly for only a second before they spit it out. Set the hook as soon as you suspect a strike. Unless you develop this reflex reaction to any unusual line movement or feel, you will lose many fish.
Striking and Hooking
When you see, sense, or feel the take, react quickly with a line-hand pull, with your rod tip still low and pointing at the fly. This tightens the fly line and leader against the hook and fish. The instant you feel the fly's resistance, increase the line-hand pull power and begin to strike with your rod hand by pulling back and lifting with the butt section of the rod.
Study the illustration carefully. Do not raise or rotate the rod tip as you do when striking a trout. The fly-rod tip is an efficient shock absorber, so it is not a good hook-setter. The butt is the shock transmitter and hook-setter that can drive the hook deep into the jaw tissue of a bass. Don't stop with just one hook-setting combination. Continue a series of short pulling jabs with your line hand on the line and the rod's butt section. Why? Because bass and other large predator fish use their jaws, teeth, and tongue to hold, bite, and crush any active and sizable food item so it cannot escape.
Bass, pike, stripers, and snook, even large trout, have tough-skinned, bony mouths. For a hook to penetrate these tough mouths you must use a sharp hook with a small barb or, preferably, one with no barb. Larger bass-fly hooks in sizes 6 to 5/0 with high barbs don't penetrate a bass's mouth deep enough or fast enough, because the high barb actually obstructs full penetration. Before I realized this problem and discovered a solution, I lost most of the big bass I hooked before or during their first jump. They were never really hooked. When using sharp, barbless hooks I don't lose a tenth of those big fish now.
There's another problem. Large bass clamp down so tightly on what they believe to be a crayfish, minnow, frog, or snake that it is difficult with a fly rod to overcome that bite grip enough to move the fly in their mouth and hook them.
I have always suspected from observing bass strike flies, then seeing the hooking strike, that actual hooking does not begin until the bass feels the initial strike and decides to spit out the fake. Then, as the fish relaxes its jaw grip, the fly is pulled with the line and rod to hook the fish. With this in mind, you should linehand pull and rod strike over a period of several seconds or longer.
Some fish, especially really big ones that have grabbed a large, bulky bass fly, are not easily intimidated and continue to bite and hold the fly for a minute or two before opening up and spitting out the fly–never being hooked. I've often seen this happen with large bass, pike, muskies, pickerel, brown trout, and snook. If your rod tip is not low and if slack line exists, you'll find it difficult to hook any of these larger fish.
To test this method, stick the hook of your bass fly into a four- or five-pound object-a cardboard box with sand in it is a good prop. Place it on a floor, sidewalk, or other smooth surface. Put 30 to 40 feet of fly line and leader between the fly rod and the hooked box or object. Tighten the fly line and try to pull and move the object toward you with the low rod tip, butt, and line-pull strike described above; it will move. Now try to move it with the traditional high-rod trout-fly strike. It will be nearly impossible to move the box; the rod and fly line absorb most of the strike energy.
Fighting the Fish
Once the bass is hooked, you must exert enough rod and line pressure to gain the initial upper hand. Force the fish to come toward you with fly-line pulls and your fly rod's leverage. When you're sure you have the fish hooked and under control, begin with your line hand to take up any slack fly line between your rod finger's grip and the fly reel by reeling excess slack onto the spool. If you have several yards of slack, it must be put on the reel evenly, with enough tension to avoid tangling problems. Using your line hand, quickly place the fly line under your rod hand's little finger and use that finger to keep the fly line under control and under tension as you reel up the slack. If you have a multiplier fly reel, this can be done two or three times faster.
The sooner you reel up slack, the fewer problems you'll have with line tangles. This is called "getting the fish on the reel." If you cast from a float tube or boat to the shoreline, bass will often come straight at you when hooked, seeking the safety of deeper water, and you will have lots of slack to recover. I often back kick or paddle away to assist in fighting the fish. Sometimes, however, they run in the opposite direction and pull out all the slack line. In this case, with the slack gone, switch immediately to control with the reel. Then fight the fish by reeling in or giving line from the reel.
Keep the fish away from the various underwater structures they like so much. The strength of your leader and the stiffness of your fly rod, especially in the butt section, is important in handling this situation. Keep your rod angled up no farther than 10 or 11 o'clock for best leverage and shockabsorbing control on the fish. Control of slack is the key to maintaining this optimum angle. If the rod gets to 12 or 1 o'clock or farther, you'll lose leverage and line control, and usually the fish.
Landing the Fish
Because bass have large, tough mouths and the flies and leaders you use are strong, you can fight hard with a fly rod. As soon as the bass begins to surface and weaken near you, it's probably ready to land. Reel the fly-line-leader junction to a point just outside the tiptop guide and, using the rod's leverage, slide the bass toward you.
You can now seize the fish in several ways. A landing net is the safest and surest if you use it properly. Place it under the water a few inches, pull the bass over it, then loosen the rod's pull and the bass's head will drop into the net; as it does so, lift the net. Never try to capture or scoop up a bass, as you would an insect in a butterfly net, or you'll lose the fish.
You can also hand-lip the bass. Most fly fishers prefer this landing technique. Simply grasp the bass by its lower lip and jaw with your line hand's thumb and index finger and lift up on the jaw. This method immobilizes the bass, allowing you to unhook it.
The following methods work especially well for specific situations or flies:
Floating fly line–jigging fly. To jig a fly, use a floating fly line and an eight- to ten-foot leader. Allow the jig fly to sink to the bottom or as deep as you want to fish it. Make a fly-line strip, then pause. This causes the fly to hop up and down abruptly or "jig." Bass go crazy over a jig fly that sits on the bottom for two or three seconds, then suddenly jigs once or twice.
Sinking-tip fly line–floating fly. To obtain a unique floating/diving/ subsurface swimming-floating retrieve, use a sinking-tip line and a six-foot leader with any surface or surface-diving fly. Cast the fly and allow the sinking-tip to sink. When you make short strips of the line, the fly will work on the surface. An abrupt or longer pull causes it to splash or pop and dive following the sunken line tip. Keep pulling and the fly swims to the depth of the fly-line tip. Stop pulling and the fly turns head up and returns to the surface as long as the line tip does not sink deeper than the length of the leader. Bass foods such as frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, and minnows have this type of surface-to-surface action.
Full-sinking fly line–floating fly. To swim a fly deep over bottom structure, use a floating fly and two to four feet of leader on a fast-sinking, full sinking fly line. The heavy fly line sinks to the bottom, pulling the buoyant fly with it. But the floating fly suspends off the bottom in relationship to its buoyancy and the leader's length. Each time you pull or quickly strip in fly line, the fly dives toward bottom and then rises when you stop pulling. If you pull the suspended fly slowly along, it swims without encountering or hanging up on structure obstacles such as moss beds, sunken logs, brush, and rocks. This deadly method is excellent for fishing deep for big bass in heavy brush or weed cover.
Dave Whitlock, of Norfork, Ark., is well known for his innovative bass flies and fishing techniques. He teaches his bass and trout techniques at the L. L. Bean Fly Fishing School.